Thursday 6 January 2011

Richard II, King of England

Richard II was King of England from 1377 to 1399.  He was born in Bordeaux on 6 January 1367, the second son of Edward, the Black Prince (eldest son of Edward III) and Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent.  Richard became king in 1377 on the death of his grandfather, Edward III, his elder brother and father predeceasing him.
            Even though he was a whopping ten years old, Richard was crowned king.  Apparently the coronation was so exhausting that he had to be carried back to the palace and lost a shoe on the way.  Because of his young age, Richard was not expected to rule himself and a council was set up to do the job for him.  However, when things became especially sticky, it was convenient to have a young king to stick into the mess.  Just this happened in 1381, during the Peasants’ Revolt.  A large number of disaffected peasants (upset over poll taxes and wages being artificially depressed, among other things) assembled (mainly from Kent) and took to the streets of London.  The Savoy Palace (roughly in the spot now occupied by the luxury hotel), the London home of Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt, probably the most hated man in England, was burned to the ground and some archbishops were executed (or murdered, depending on who you asked).  Even the Tower of London was broken into.  In such a dire situation as this, the adults decided that turning things over to the fourteen-year-old king couldn’t make things any worse (had they met any fourteen-year-old boys?), and let Richard ride out to Smithfield and talk to the rebels.  Miraculously, Richard made headway, and even convinced the rebels to go home after their leader, Wat Tyler, was murdered in front of them, the result of a misunderstanding by the mayor of London.  It was undoubtedly one of the high points of Richard’s life; given how his reign turned out, some might consider it the only high point.  Poor Richard, he peaked early.
            Months later, Richard married Anne of Bohemia, daughter and sister to two Holy Roman Emperors.  Anne and Richard were just a few months apart in age, and they seem to have loved each other greatly.  They were rarely apart, and Richard was absolutely devastated when Anne died of plague in June 1394.  He even went so far as to have part of the palace in which she had died (Sheen) razed to the ground.  Nothing says love like wanton destruction.
            Despite enjoying twelve years of blissful marriage with the love of his life, all was not smooth sailing for Richard.  Between 1386 and 1388 Richard ran into some problems with his nobles, who didn’t really approve of his policies or the way his government was spending its money.  Of course, despite Richard being technically of age, the council was still ruling for him, so the nobles went after the king’s friends and advisors, eventually exiling and killing a large number of them.  Particularly painful was the exile of Richard’s best friend Robert de Vere (whom a couple of chroniclers, after Richard’s downfall, suggested had been his lover), who was really only exiled because he had made it out of the country before he could be killed, and Richard’s childhood tutor, Simon Burley, who was executed despite the pleas of king, queen (who even went down on her knees), and others.  Five nobles had mainly orchestrated this power shift, and they were: Thomas of Woodstock, the Duke of Gloucester (and Richard’s uncle! – I bet he got knocked off the Christmas card list); Richard, earl of Arundel; Thomas, earl of Warwick; Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby (and Richard’s cousin); and Thomas Mowbray, earl of Nottingham.  Collectively, they were called the Appellants, and Richard was later to exact sweet revenge on several of them, although Henry Bolingbroke ultimately had the last laugh.
            After regaining power in 1389 by declaring he was finally of age (at 22!), Richard did a decent job of ruling.  Sure, he was criticized for extravagant spending, but that was like accusing Congress of pork-barrel spending: every king does it and every Parliament complains.  It’s how things work.
            After Anne’s death, Richard made a trip to pacify Ireland, which turned out to be pretty successful.  He was also the first reigning king to visit Ireland in over one hundred years, so he wasn’t a total slouch.  Since Anne had died childless (and kings needed queens to preside over their court and household), Richard began to look around for a new wife.  It seems he was making overtures to marry an Aragonese princess, but the French king flipped out when he heard about that.  He offered Richard choice from among several of his female relatives, but Richard made it pretty clear he wanted the daughter of a king for a wife, not some second-rate cousin.  Charles VI was happy to oblige, and offered his six (going on seven) –year-old daughter, Isabella.  Richard accepted and the two were married in November 1396.  Richard suffered a lot of criticism for marrying a mere child when he was twenty-nine, but the marriage sealed a twenty-eight-year truce between the two warring nations.  Richard also treated Isabella more like a beloved daughter than a wife, and the two reportedly became rather fond of one another.
            In 1397 Richard decided the time was right for taking care of some old business: he arrested Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick.  All three were charged with treason, but Warwick made an abject submission and got off with life in prison.  Arundel refused to cave and was executed, while Gloucester was removed secretly to Calais (an English possession in France) and murdered.  In 1398, Richard took care of Bolingbroke and Mowbray by exiling the former for ten years and the latter for life.
            Unfortunately, Richard made a few missteps.  When his uncle, John of Gaunt, father of Bolingbroke died, Richard confiscated his lands.  Bolingbroke was offended, and other magnates were probably a bit fearful for their own lands.  When Richard went off to pacify the Irish again (bloody Irish), Bolingbroke returned to England, claimed his inheritance, and then, when he encountered relatively little opposition, decided to claim the crown of England as well (he probably figured, “why the hell not?  Reach for the stars!”).  Once Richard was back in England he was captured, convinced to resign the crown, officially deposed by Parliament (September 1399), and packed off to a castle as a prisoner.  After an abortive attempt to restore Richard to the throne, Bolingbroke (now Henry IV) got a bit nervous and probably suggested, politely no doubt, that Richard needed to go.  Within days, he was dead (February 1400), probably due to starvation.  It was important there be no marks of violence left on the body, so that no one could prove Richard had been murdered.  In being starved to death, he got off easy, unlike his great-grandfather, Edward II, who was reportedly murdered courtesy of a red-hot poker up the anus.
            But a mere rehearsal of his reign cannot do full justice to the hilarity/general dickishness that was Richard II.  Being a teenage king probably had a lot to do with it, but Richard had a number of fascinating temper tantrums.  For instance, in 1384 a crazed friar told him that his uncle, John of Gaunt, wanted to kill him.  Without a moment for reflection, Richard called for Gaunt to be executed; the king was later calmed down and rescinded the pre-emptive order.  Instead, the friar was tortured to death by friends of the king, who were trying to encourage him to reveal who had sent him.  Another time (in 1385), he became angry with the archbishop of Canterbury; hours later, when his barge passed by the archbishop’s on the Thames, Richard drew his sword and threatened to stab the archbishop right there.  He had to be forcibly held back by some people on his barge, who subsequently jumped ship into the archbishop’s boat, lest they have to face the king’s further wrath. 
Richard seemed to reserve much of his anger, though, for Richard, earl of Arundel.  Perhaps England was only big enough for two Dicks.  In his younger days, Richard was content to shout at Arundel, such as when Arundel criticized his government and Richard told him, “You lie in your teeth and can go to the devil!”  It’s a sign of simpler times, though, that the chroniclers were all shocked by such behavior, rather than laughing at such a lame attempt at profanity as would certainly happen nowadays.  The big blow-up between the two (well, aside from the executions) occurred during the August 1394 funeral of Anne of Bohemia.  Arundel failed to appear for the funeral procession from St. Paul’s to Westminster, then had the audacity to arrive late at the funeral and request to leave earlier.  Richard, grief-stricken and already unfriendly to Arundel, reacted angrily by grabbing a cleric’s rod and striking Arundel on the head, knocking him down.  The blow drew blood, polluting the sanctuary and delaying the funeral while the altar was reconsecrated.  This delay surely must have served to make Arundel even later to his previous engagement, unless he had taken the blow as permission to leave the funeral early.
            Richard was also very anxious to have his power and majesty recognized.  Reportedly, he would sit enthroned for hours, and anyone he made eye contact with had to kneel before him.  Tedious.  He was also the first English king to encourage his lay subjects to address him as “your highness” and “your royal majesty.”  While subjects on the Continent tended to address their monarchs in these high-falutin' terms, it was new in England.  Historians have a range of opinions on why Richard did this, spanning from his desire to reinforce royal power after the humiliations of 1386-88 to his narcissistic, mentally-deranged personality.
            Richard II obviously had his faults, and they cost him his crown in the end.  However, he gave Chaucer a sweet job as clerk of the king’s works (and later as a forester), enabling the poet to keep a roof over his head and pen in his hand.  Guess Richard wasn’t all bad (although some long-suffering English majors might beg to differ).
            So on this feast of the Epiphany, let us wish Richard II (a king with a little less wisdom than the magi) happy 644th birthday!

To continue your quest for knowledge, see:

Adam of Usk.  The chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377-1421.  Ed. and transl. by Chris Given-
Wilson.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Given-Wilson, Chris.  Chronicles of the Revolution, 1397-1400: The Reign of Richard II. 
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.
Walsingham, Thomas.  The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham 1376-1422.  Trans.
by David Preest, with notes by James G. Clark.  Woodbridge: the Boydell Press, 
Westminster Chronicle 1381-1394.  Edited by L.C. Hector and B.F. Harvey.  Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1982.

Hutchison, Harold Frederick.  The hollow crown: a life of Richard II.  London : Eyre &
Spottiswoode, 1961.
Saul, Nigel.  Richard II.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. (your best bet)
Steel, Anthony.  Richard II.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941. (for a neurotic Dick)

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